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Levan, Larry (1954-1992)  
 
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Larry Levan is regularly hailed as the world's greatest disc jockey and widely credited with changing the sound of dance music in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the driving force behind the legendary Paradise Garage dance club in New York City for the entire time it was open (1976-1987).

Levan made connections with the meanings and feelings of songs, often sending messages in music to the dancers. He had a heightened sense of drama and he wanted, more than anything, to control the clubbers at the Garage. He was the first DJ to understand the value of having a personal relationship with the dancers, and he knew how to read a crowd. He knew exactly what music to play to fire people up; visitors to the Garage never forgot the experience.

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Lawrence Philpot was born on July 21, 1954, in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. His mother, Minnie, was a dressmaker. His brother and sister--twins--were eighteen when Lawrence was born, and he was spoiled as the baby of the family. His parents never married. In later years, he took his mother's name, becoming Larry Levan.

Levan met Frankie Knuckles at a Harlem drag ball in 1969 while they were sewing beads on a costume for a drag queen called The Duchess. They became inseparable. They hung out at The Loft, David Mancuso's home that he converted to a disco in 1970.

In 1971, Nicky Siano, owner of the new dance club The Gallery, hired Levan and Knuckles to decorate the club and prepare the buffet table for the opening. Siano taught the two teenagers the rudiments of disc jockeying.

Soon, Levan was working the lights for DJ Joseph Bonfiglio at the Continental Baths. After Bonfiglio walked out one day, the manager told Levan that he would be playing records that night.

In 1973, Levan started dating Richard Long, a sound designer, and together they turned Long's showroom into SoHo Place, described by Levan as "a very energetic black club." The SoHo, however, was too successful; it was soon shut down because of overcrowding.

From SoHo, Levan went to Reade Street, a club owned by Michael Brody. Levan and Brody began a long and mutually profitable relationship. In 1976, when Brody bought the Paradise Garage at 84 King Street in West Soho, he immediately hired Levan as the resident DJ.

The Pardise Garage had a massive, 10,000 square foot second floor above a huge parking garage. Michael Brody realized he had a star DJ, so he built the new club around Levan, providing his star with the best equipment money could buy.

Although Levan had no formal training in electronic engineering, he quickly learned and was soon designing "Levans," his own brand of speakers.

Long and Levan designed a five-way crossover system that allowed Levan to manipulate the sound so that he could pick out certain lyrics and omit or emphasize different voices to create records that spoke to each other and to the clubbers.

Levan's style of DJing became known as "disco evangelism," preaching through the mix. He focused on heavier black music--r&b disco--that attracted a mixed crowd to the Garage.

Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, as well as young white men, crowded into the Garage to hear Levan play, and the Garage became the first disco club to be completely integrated. It became a refuge for recently liberated gay men in the 1970s who looked for friendship and camaraderie amid the thrill of the dance floor.

Levan was not the greatest sound mixer; what made him famous was his choice of songs, sound effects, and live keyboards. He was not afraid to play different kinds of music in the Garage, and it was not unusual to hear Stevie Nicks, the Clash, Pat Benatar, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Instant Funk, Yazoo, Loleatta Holloway, Chaka Khan, Talking Heads, Eddy Grant, and Gwen Guthrie over the course of Levan's 12-hour shows from Saturday night to Sunday morning.

The dark side of Larry Levan was epitomized in his constant drug use, which resulted in erratic and eccentric behavior at the Garage. At first, his outbursts only endeared him to his fans. Levan was a diva, and everyone knew it.

Among his eccentricities was his practice of turning off all the lights in the Garage, leaving everyone in pitch blackness, until he felt like starting a record. He even had a set of light controls mounted on his DJ booth so he could manipulate the lights.

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